It is said that in the South, casseroles can be made just for about for every occasion. Remarkably, that is even true here in the Hill Country. This particular casserole may send some readers back to an earlier time. A casserole is any of a variety of a large deep-dish presentations of oven baked dishes. The concept has been around for hundreds of years. Early casseroles consisted of rice and chicken, but any combination can be found. Around the 1870s these first morphed into the kind we sometimes enjoy today—a one-dish meal.
By the 1950s a popular glass cookware—Pyrex™— was found in use everywhere and made baking a casserole so very much easier—and safer. Pyrex was branded in 1915 from a 1908 process that created a low-expansion glass when heated. For kitchen use Corning Glass first came out with a glass pie plate, which we now know so well. By the late 1930s and 1940s its use in the kitchen had grown remarkably, and today it is a common kitchen utensil. In the ‘50s casseroles became very popular because the manufacturers of the new bakeware promoted casserole recipes in their marketing.
Before this, a type of Dutch oven was used for centuries. These are the black kettles with tiny legs. This design can be found around the world, and as Ella Gold would demonstrate at her annual Christmas parties in the Tatsch Haus, they worked beautifully in a huge fireplace over the fire. She never told us the history of the Dutch Oven. An Englishman discovered he could make such pots cheaper using cast iron instead of the customary brass and sold thousands. He patented the “Dutch Oven” in 1707. The term has now endured for over 300 years. Our Fredericksburg Founders had them and would swing them on a large swivel arm right over the coals of their fireplaces. Next time you are in the Pioneer Museum, look at its kitchen fireplace. So universal were these, that even Lewis and Clark took them along on their great exploration West in 1804.
Casseroles proved to be time-savers even for our pioneer Hausfrauen. They became important as Americans were finding themselves on the go more than ever. They were versatile and supposedly very economical for budget-strapped families. Some might argue that “taste didn’t matter because it wasn’t about taste,” then. It was about putting a filling meal on the table. By the 1970s casseroles took on a decidedly less-than sophisticated image and they fell from grace.
Occasionally, my mother made this recipe. Some would call this comfort food today or simply a food that makes them feel better. Technically, this is a Tetrazzini, an American dish made with diced poultry or seafood and mushrooms in a butter/cream and cheese sauce. It was supposedly named after a San Francisco Italian opera singer, and was believed to have been created around 1910 by a chef working there who was obviously infatuated with her. She was rather heavy. Perhaps he was trying to get her attention – we don’t know how it all ended.
So, when did this recipe reach Fredericksburg? A recipe submitted by Mrs. Hugo Walter can be found in the 6th edition of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book in 1948 for a Chicken Spaghetti. She warned readers to set their glass baking dish in a pan of water to prevent it from shattering when baking (pre-Pyrex), hers was heavy on the number of bell peppers (3), even larger on onions (4), and half-a-stalk of celery, seemingly suggesting a very veggie casserole. Otherwise, it was pretty much the same as my mom used to make. (Remember, Mrs. Walter was the one that thought it was so funny that I offered to share my Mussbrot (jelly sandwich) with her in 1st grade? She told all the other teachers, and I was highly insulted. Funny what one remembers.)
However this recipe was prepared in the past 100 years, it became one of the one greatest for using chicken. An endless number of varieties exist. One of perhaps the most misunderstood thing about recipes is that they serve only as guides. Always permit yourself an opportunity to explore and experiment. A casserole can be made out of anything one likes—Italian Chicken, Bolognese, Sun Dried Tomato, Mandarin—ham or tuna. It can be garnished with fried crispy onion rings or topped with almonds and pecans. The variations are endless—and one need not be restricted to using spaghetti, any pasta will suffice. The wonderful thing about this recipe is that it can be made ahead, and the leftover casserole can be kept refrigerated for a few days. So, for modern kitchen chefs on the go, this can also be a great time-saver for days ahead. It’s also a good one to have on hand during the holidays.
1 medium-sized chicken
1-16-oz pkg spaghetti
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 red bell pepper
2 yellow onions finely diced
4 tbsp unsalted butter
1 can mushrooms
Salt and Pepper to taste
1 small jar pimentos
1 can tomato soup
1/2 lb. Velveeta cheese, cut into chunks
2 ½ cups shredded Cheddar cheese
Cover with water and cook chicken in a large pot until tender over medium-low heat or until cooked through.
Cool chicken to handle, debone and shred into bite-sized pieces.
Cut bell pepper into bite-sized portions.
Fry diced white onions in 1/2 stick unsalted melted butter.
Add mushrooms and tomato soup.
Cook spaghetti in the broth left from cooking the chicken and according to its package directions, drain and set aside.
In a large pot, combine tomatoes and cream of mushroom soup, add Velveeta cheese.
Heat over low heat, stirring constantly until cheese has melted.
Add onions, peppers.
Bake 20 to 30 minutes or until heated through and the cheese bubbles.
Serve this casserole with garlic bread and perhaps a Caesar salad.